Ravished Armenia/Chapter 14
Two nights went by before Old Vartabed came again. But each night he signaled and I answered. On the third night, his face was framed again in the window casement.
“Be ready, little one—I shall lift you out soon,” he whispered. He had brought a steel bar with which to pry aside the iron bars in the window. The bars were very old—perhaps for a hundred years or more they had served to shut in the prisoners that once had been confined in this same dungeon room in Ahmed Bey’s big house. I knelt to pray, and I was on my knees when Vartabed whispered:
“Come, little one—reach Old Vartabed your hand—he will lift you.”
The bars were bent aside. There was room for the shepherd to lean inward and reach down. I caught his hands and he lifted me until I could catch hold of the iron and help myself. In a moment I leaped down to the stump which the shepherd had brought to stand on, and from this to the ground. The sheep, which were resting all about, stirred and bleated when I fell among them, but Old Vartabed whistled and they were quiet.
“We must go quickly; the gate is not locked. You must be far away, to a place I will tell you of, before morning comes and you are missed,” Old Vartabed said as he hurried me across the yard.
When we were outside the gate, Old Vartabed wrapped his coat around me, for it was cold. Then we struck out across the plains, away from the town and toward low hills in the distance.
Old Vartabed did not talk much. He was so old he needed his strength. He was anxious that I get far away before dawn. When we came to the hills the shepherd showed me a path and told me to follow it, and go on alone until I came to the hut of a friendly Kurdish family.
“But you, Old Vartabed—are you not coming with me? Will not Ahmed Bey suspect you if you return?” I asked.
“Old Vartabed is too old to live in the desert, and then, who would care for my sheep?” the old man replied.
Poor, dear Old Vartabed! Ahmed Bey had him killed in the morning.
I ran along the path the shepherd pointed out to me until, after many hours, I came to the hut of the Kurds, of whom Old Vartabed had told me. They were shepherd Kurds, and had great respect for Old Vartabed, who had told them I was the daughter of his one-time master in the Mamuret-ul-Aziz. They expected me, and were very kind.
When I thought of Old Vartabed going back to his sheep, and to the mercy of Ahmed Bey, I cried. The shepherd Kurd's wife and daughters were sorry, and the Kurd himself went down toward the plain in which Ahmed’s house stood, to learn if Old Vartabed still tended his sheep. That night he came back in great distress. He had learned of Old Vartabed’s fate. None but the shepherd could have helped me escape, Ahmed Bey had been sure. He had summoned Old Vartabed before him and the shepherd had confessed, as there was no other way. Ahmed Bey sent for his zaptiehs. Old Vartabed was led out to where his flock was waiting to be taken to the pasture. There was a shot, and he had paid with his life for his kindness to the little daughter of his one-time master.
The Kurd was much alarmed for me. Ahmed Bey had sent zaptiehs to search in the plains and hills. Perhaps they would soon be at the hut.
They would not send me away, but I knew that I must go. The hut was too close to the house of Ahmed, and the zaptiehs might come when least expected. So they gave me woolen stockings, the best they had, a great loaf of winter bread, a jug in which to carry water, and a blanket to wrap about me at night. Then I went out into the hills.
Beyond these hills was the great Dersim—the highlands of grass and sand, with hills and mountains everywhere. For many, many miles in each direction no one lived but Dersim Kurds, some in little villages, some in roving bands. On each side of the Dersim lived the Turks. Once Armenians lived in the cities of the Turks, but now the Armenians all were gone—only Turks were left.
The inhabitants of the Dersim deserts and wastes are not the vicious type of Kurds who live in the south in the regions to which we had been deported from our homes. The Kurds in the south are nomadic tribes, harsh and cruel. The Dersim Kurds mostly are farmers, and often rebel against their Turkish overlords. They are fanatical Moslems, and have their racial hatred of all “unbelievers,” as they look upon Christians. But they do not have the lust of killing human beings common with the tribes of the south. To this I owe my life.
For more than a year I was a captive or a wanderer in the Dersim. For many days after I left my friends at the news of Old Vartabed’s fate I hid in the daytime and traveled at night, walking, walking, always walking; somewhere, and yet nowhere. When a settlement loomed up before me I turned the other way, trudging aimlessly across the wide plains, through the hills or over deserts.
My bread soon gave out, and water was hard to get, for wherever there was a well or a spring a settlement of Kurds was close. Near one well I hid throughout one whole day, waiting my chance to slip up unobserved and cool my parched throat. There was no opportunity in the daylight, and when night came and I gathered courage to creep near to the well the dogs from the houses ran out and barked at me. I was too exhausted to run when the villagers came out to see what had aroused the dogs. They took me into the settlement and shut me up in a cave for the night. In the morning the chief of the settlement took me as his slave and commanded me to obey the orders of his family.
They made me do the work a man would do. I tended the stock, carried the water and worked in the fields. When I did not do enough work the Kurds would beat me with their long, thick sticks and refuse me food. When I did enough work to please them the women would throw me a piece of bread. At night I slept on the ground, outside the huts, with rags and torn blankets to keep out the cold, but never was I warm.
After weeks passed I was too weak to work any longer. I fell down when I went to the fields, and could not get up when a Kurd kicked me. So they gave me half a loaf of bread and told me to go away. I went a little way and then rested for two days. It was so nice not to have to drag a plow made of sticks from morning to night, I soon got my strength back. And then I started to walk again.
Beyond Erzerum I knew there were Russians—friends of the Armenians. I tried to keep my face turned to where I thought Erzerum would be—a hundred miles or more through the Dersim. I kept away from the villages until I could walk no more for want of food or water. Then I would give myself up to be a work slave again. Each time the Kurds kept me until my strength gave way. Then they gave me the half loaf of bread and let me go away.
Although it was very cold now, I had no clothes. The Kurds would never let me have any of the cloth they spun. Snow in the crevices among the hills gave me water, but all I had to eat for weeks, even months, at a time was the bark from small trees, weeds that grow in the winter time, and the dead blades of grass I found under the snow.
The snow had melted when I reached the edge of the Dersim to the west. I do not know what month it was, as I had lost all track of time, but I knew spring was passing because the snow disappeared. I was now in the neighborhood of Turkish cities. Occasionally I saw Turks, in their white coats, walking over the plains. I saw flocks of sheep now and then, and other signs that I was near cities. Yet I knew I must keep away from these cities or their inhabitants.
One day from the side of a hill where I was hiding, almost too weak from hunger to walk, I saw a great line of people with donkeys and carts and arabas, passing on what seemed to be a road to the south. As far as I could see, this cavalcade stretched out. For hours it wound its way across the plains. I wondered what it meant. I crept down from the hill and, crawling on the ground, drew as near as I could. I saw the people were Turks, and that they were carrying household goods with them. I saw, too, that they were excited and seemed to be unhappy.
I watched the line of Turkish families go by all day. When it was dark I determined to go the way they had come from. Whatever it was that had sent the Turks from their homes in the cities further east, it could not be anything that meant ill for a girl of the Armenians.
Already I had crossed the Kara River, the farthest branch of the Euphrates. Along the roads over which the Turks had passed in the daytime there were scraps of bread, glass jars from which fruits had been emptied, and other remnants of food. I gathered enough to give me strength for walking.
The plains across which I made my way that night were those which once formed the Garden of Eden, according to the teachings of the priests and our Sunday school books. The Kara River was one of the Four Rivers. Nearby were the Acampis of the Bible and the Chorok and the Aras, the other three. Among these same rocks through which I hurried along as fast as my strength would allow, Eve herself once had wandered. When I sat down at times to rest I thought of Eve, and wondered if she were some place Up Above, looking down upon me, one of the last of the great race of people which had been the first to accept the teachings of Christ and which had suffered so much in His name through all the centuries that have passed since Eve’s gardens blossomed on the plains and slopes about me.
The next day there were more lines of Turkish refugees. These appeared to be belated and hurried in great confusion. Turkish soldiers appeared among them, and there were many zaptiehs. Far beyond I saw the minarets of a city. I knew it must be Erzerum. I came near to a village and saw the inhabitants rushing about from house to house in excitement.
I was afraid to travel in the daytime. I could not go near one of these villages, even to beg for water, because I had no clothes, and would be ashamed, even if I dared to trust that I would not be taken captive. During the night I crept closer to the distant city. In the morning I stood at the edge of a plateau, which broke downward in a sheer drop to the plain. Clinging close to rocks, which hid me from the view of the refugees who still passed along the roads, I could look down into the city.
I saw a great rushing about. Moving bodies of soldiers came and went. Refugees were streaming out of the city and were joined by others from villages all around. In the distance I could hear what I knew to be the firing of guns.
The firing came closer. Now and then big guns spoke, shaking the ground about me. I saw explosions in the city. Houses appeared to fall each time the big guns sounded. Far across the city there suddenly appeared clouds of dust. They drew nearer. Soldiers fled out of the gates of the city nearest me, in the wake of the civilians.
Late in the afternoon the firing ceased. The dust clouds beyond the city had drawn closer. Out of them suddenly emerged bands of horsemen. They rode directly toward the far gates. Companies of Turkish soldiers met them at the city walls. There was a clash. The Turks were driven back. The horsemen followed. There was rifle firing. Other bands of horsemen rode down from every direction in the east, in through the gates and into the city itself.
The Russians had come!
In an hour the city was almost quiet again. Far off I saw great columns of troops moving slowly. Behind the Cossacks the Russian army was coming. The Turks in the city had surrendered.
When night fell I went down from the rocks and into the town. I hoped before dawn came I could find a garment, or a piece of shawl, which had been thrown away and with which I could cover myself. Terror of the Cossacks kept indoors the citizens who had been brave enough to remain in their homes. The streets were deserted in the outskirts, except for an occasional zaptieh stealing along, as afraid to be seen as I was.
Suddenly, as I turned the corner of a narrow street, hugging close to the wall, hoping that this turn, or the next, would bring me near one of the houses I knew the Russians must have occupied, I saw a beautiful sight—the American flag. The rays of a searchlight played on it.
Lights shone from all the windows in the house over which the flag flew. There, I knew, would be my haven of safety. But not until after the dawn did I have the courage to go near. Then I saw the figures of men moving about the yard and near the doorways. I ran out of my hiding place and fell at the feet of a tall, kindly-looking man, who had just emerged from the house door, and who stood talking to a Russian officer.
I felt the tall man stoop down and put his hand upon my head. All at once the sun seemed to break out of the gray dawn and shine down upon me. Then I fell asleep. When I opened my eyes again it was many days after, they told me. I was in a warm bed, and kindly people were all about me. When they spoke to me. in a strange language, I tried to ask for the tall man who had lifted me up from the street at the doorstep. An interpreter came, and then, in a little while, the tall man came in and smiled gently, and I knew that everything was all right.
This man, they told me, was a famous missionary physician, Dr. F. W. MacCallum, who was known for his kindnesses to my people throughout the Turkish empire. He had been compelled to leave Constantinople when the war came, but he had come into Erzerum with the Russians—to be among the first to give succor to my people. The house had once been the American mission. The missionaries had been compelled to flee, but they had returned with the Russians.
Dr. MacCallum, who now is in New York and was the first good friend I found after my arrival in this country, bought thousands of Armenian girls out of slavery in those days when the Russians were pushing into Turkey from the Caucasus. With money supplied by the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief he purchased these girls from their Turkish captors for $1. apiece. The Turks, knowing the Russians would liberate these captive Christian girls if they found them, were glad to sell them at this price rather than risk losing them without collecting anything.
General Andranik, the great Armenian leader, who is our national hero, came to see me. For many years General Andranik kept alive the courage of all Armenians. He promised them freedom and constantly endangered his life to keep up the spirits of my people. The Turks put a price upon his head, and he was hunted from one end of the empire to the other—yet he always escaped. He led the Armenian regiments, made up of Armenians who lived in Russia, in the vanguard of the Russian army sent against the Turks.
When I told General Andranik how I had seen my own dear people killed he felt very sorry for me. He comforted and cheered me, and called me his “little girl.” I would rather he said that to me than give me all the riches in the world.
A Russian officer who could speak Armenian also came to talk with me. When I had told him everything he left, but in an hour he returned. This time a very distinguished looking officer, very tall, with a kind face, came with him. I knew he must be of very high rank, for there was much excitement when he entered the house. The officer who had talked with me first repeated to the other many of the things I had told him. The distinguished looking officer then spoke to me, first in Russian, and then in French, which I understood.
“You have been a very unhappy girl,” he said, “and I am very happy to have arrived in time to save you. We shall take good care of you, and all Russians will be your friends.”
When he had gone they told me who he was—the Grand Duke, in command of the armies in the Caucasus. The officer who had visited me first was General Trokin, the Grand Duke’s chief of staff.
When I was well and strong, General Andranik allowed me to help care for hundreds of Armenian children who had been found in the hands of the Turks and Armenian refugees who had succeeded in hiding in the hills and mountains and who now crept in to ask protection of the Russians. I helped, too, to comfort the girls who had been bought out of the harems.
When General Andranik moved on with the advancing Russians the Grand Duke ordered that I be escorted safely to Sari Kamish, where the railroad begins, and sent from there to Tiflis, the capital of the Russian Caucasus. When General Andranik bade me good-by he said:
“The Grand Duke has indorsed arrangements for you to be sent to America, where our poor Armenians have many friends. When you reach that beloved land tell its people that Armenia is prostrate, torn and bleeding, but that it will rise again—if America will only help us—send food for the starving, and money to take them back to their homes when the war is over.”
As I started away with the escort, toward Sari Kamish, General Andranik took from his finger a beautiful ring, which, he said, had been his father’s and his grandfather’s, and put it on my finger. It is the ring I wear now—all that is left to me of my country.
From Sari Kamish the Grand Duke’s soldiers sent me to Tiflis. There I was received by representatives of the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, and supplied with funds sufficient to take me, with the Grand Duke’s passport, to Petrograd, Sweden and America.
But when I reached Petrograd all was not well within the city. Already the Czar had been removed and the government of Minister Kerensky was losing control of the populace. Rioting in the streets had begun, and the authorities to whom the Grand Duke and the American representatives at Tiflis had sent me had been removed or executed.
Again I was friendless and without shelter. I had a great deal of money, but I could buy hardly any food. For fifty rubles I could purchase only a loaf of bread. When I became so hungry I stopped kind looking persons in the street to ask them if they could help me obtain something to eat, they would look at me sorrowfully, offer me handsful of paper money, and say they could give me that, but not food. Every one seemed to have a great deal of money, but things to eat were very scarce.
No one dared take me in. I found an Armenian church, empty now and deserted. All the Armenians who had lived in Petrograd had been frightened away. They had been the first, because of their experiences in their own country, to scent the coming of trouble, and had disappeared. I remained in the deserted church for many days, afraid to go out in the streets, where there was much killing and robbery. Only in the early morning, when the streets were more quiet, would I venture to look for food.
At last I saw an American passing the church. I ran out and begged him, in French, to help me. I showed him my passport and he took me in a droschky to the American Embassy. Here every one was kind to me. My passports were changed and the next day I was started toward Christiania.
The train on which I traveled was stopped many times by bands of soldiers, who demanded the passports of every one. Although they took several persons from the train at one stop, my passport was honored and I went on. The farther we went from Petrograd the quieter the country became. Then we left all trouble behind and the train speeded on in what seemed a peaceful and happy land.
At last we reached Christiania and there I found kind friends. They gave me the first really satisfying food I had had in many days. In addition they gave me kindness and the quiet of their home. While awaiting word from the United States, I rested and won back some measure of my strength.
More funds reached me at Christiania, and I soon found myself aboard an ocean liner bound for Halifax, on my way to the land of freedom. From Halifax I came direct to New York. As the Statue of Liberty was pointed out to me as we entered the harbor, I rejoiced not merely because I, myself, was safe at last, but because I had at last reached the country where I was to deliver the message that would bring help to my suffering people.
Here I found good friends—kindly Americans who have made me as happy as ever I can be. And, best of all, they are not being kind merely to one unfortunate girl—they are sending help to those I left behind—to those who are still alive and lost in the sandy deserts. They have made it possible for me to tell in this, my book, what General Andranik said to me:
“Armenia is trusting to her friends—the people of the United States.”